Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Dr. Maqsudul Hasan Nuri
Although the third Covid-19 wave is subsiding after its raging ferocity, there is still vaccine hesitancy amongst many sections of the public. Pakistan has done reasonably well in containing the virus, yet the inoculation rate is only around three percent of the population. In order to attain herd immunity, experts opine that it should go to nearly 70-80 percent. There are warnings of a fourth wave if adequate precautions are not taken.
Those hesitant about getting vaccinated include ignorant, semi-informed and ill-informed groups, including some diehard religious elements. The Indian example in our neighbourhood should be an eye-opener, where the daily death toll has escalated in the last few months to almost 4,000 a day.
In developing countries, including Pakistan, many misconceptions, myths and old wives tales are rampant about the virus. First, there is outright denial and a mocking dismissal of the possibility that the virus will somehow affect them. Some people think that if they are apparently healthy, they will survive. This attitude of false bravado can be felt amongst many youngsters, even those ostensibly educated. Many charlatans and pseudo-medics are prescribing concoctions that induce fake confidence and non-scientific so-called cures.
Others have taken fatalism to extreme levels and rely too much on the power of faith and hope that God will save them if they continuously invoke His name and blessings, regardless of the need to observe any precautions. Unfortunately, sometimes they spurn sound medical advice with open disdain. They think that if they are good Muslims or good human beings the virus will somehow bypass them. As a result, many of the given precautions are ignored or cavalierly dismissed.
Our communal way of life, crowded living conditions and problems of earning a livelihood prevent strict enforcement of rules. In neighbouring India, we have seen how the Holi religious festival and communal holy dips in the polluted sacred River Ganges have taken a deadly toll. Above all, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s election campaign in West Bengal has complicated matters. Resultantly, cremation pyres have been burning day and night with acrid smoke wafting into neighbouring urban localities – a horrifying reminder of the macabre dance of death, tragedy and helplessness.
Many Hindus believe that their gods shall save them from the scourge. PM Narendra Modi gave voice to this by invoking exceptionalism in his message to the World Economic Forum on January 28, 2021: “(India) has saved the world, entire humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling the coronavirus.”
It is little realised however that regardless of religion, nationality or social status, coronavirus can strike everyone, everywhere, if one trivialises its lethality.
Conspiracy theorists feed on lack of information or false information. This is also applicable to the advanced western countries. ‘Denialists’ of Covid-19, especially in the developing world, ascribe the pandemic health crisis to foreign plots, i.e. implanting of chips and altering DNA in human bodies, thus affecting fertility, or Big Pharma raking in profits. Needless to say, similar fears were expressed decades ago at the time of the polio campaign in Pakistan. We remember the landing on the moon in 1969, dismissed by many people, especially the clerics, as a western hoax.
Viral diseases are not new: pandemics have ravaged humanity throughout history. Following World War I, a major pandemic dubbed the Spanish flu swept the world and millions lost their lives. In our case, the societal indifference is compounded by lack of supplies, inadequate facilities and poor medical care.
Even countries like the US and UK have not been immune to the ravages of the virus. Many Pakistanis who work abroad regularly visit relatives at home and tend to congregate in a carnival-like fashion with friends and relatives, ignoring the prescribed precautions. Even educated people tend to disregard these and go overboard in their excitement.
Agreed, human beings are social animals and cannot remain isolated from each other for long. They also have to work and interact with other human beings for a living. Vaccination is not foolproof and 100 percent secure, yet it is still a desirable and reasonably preventive measure under the circumstances.
Illiteracy, denial, defiance and lack of facilities are all cumulatively responsible for the hesitancy in getting the anti-Covid inoculations. The example of some Asian countries where governments have taken strict and enforceable measures are success stories worth emulating. We cannot wait for ‘herd immunity’ to come to our rescue. It may take a long time. Nor can we continue blaming other countries on vaccine distribution and discrimination.
The best, safest and most practicable way is to take precautions, create awareness and implement prevention rules. It is however of some relief that the government is taking all possible measures. Science and knowledge have to be shared where beneficial to humanity. Covid-19 is not permanent and can be controlled by government directions, strict implementation, public cooperation and compliance. Some nations in East Asia, i.e. China, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan have been able to control the menace.
Misinformation and excessive complacency are deadlier than the virus itself. Of course, the above countries had prior experience with H1N1 flu and SARS. National politicisation, internal strife and the slow rate of vaccination are challenging tasks. ‘Herd immunity’ may occur when 70-80 percent of the population is immunised but this will take time. The recent start of vaccination of youth nearing 30 years of age is an encouraging sign and the results from vaccination centres are showing declining positivity rates. Vaccines are being procured from multiple sources and schools have partially opened up.
In the meantime, extra precautions remain essential: safe distancing, proper mask wearing, avoiding large crowds and frequent washing of hands as basic measures. Inoculation, respirators and oxygen procurement should continue. We also need to learn from India’s poor management: over-complacency, avoiding herding together of large numbers of people and keeping up a steady supply of medicines, respirators and oxygen supplies.
The epidemic may or may not end soon and could mutate, so we have to be doubly vigilant for any subsequent wave. Misinformation is deadlier than the virus. It is better to remain cautiously hopeful without any sense of despair or panic.
The writer has been Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Chairman Department of IR, NUML, former Adviser COMSATS and Acting President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute